Eskimos have their igloos. Inuit have their ice caves. But for most of us, the extent of life under ice has been pretty limited. Since 1980, four ice hotels have set out to change that. These luxury igloos are full-size resorts built completely from ice. Contractors and ice artists piece together these luxury entities with 2-ton blocks of ice from a freshwater source. Then, naturally, they pray that global warming doesn't heat things up too dramatically after that.
Icehotel; Jukkasjarvi, Sweden
Situated in the village Jukkasjarvi, 125 miles north of the Arctic Circle in Sweden, the original Icehotel has been built every year since 1980. The facility didn't start out as a lodge; at first, it was simply built as a seasonal structure to house an art exhibit. Then suddenly, organizers got a great idea: Why not keep it year-round and commercialize the concept?
One night a group of foreign guests, equipped with reindeer hides and sleeping bags, decided it would be a good idea to use the cylindrical-shaped igloo as accommodation. The following morning the group raved about the unique sensation of sleeping in an igloo. Quicker than you can say "Absolut," the concept of Icehotel was born.
Accommodations inside the Icehotel are, well ... chilly. Regardless of the temperature outside, the air in the Icehotel is always between 17 and 23 degrees Fahrenheit. Bedrooms have blocks of ice as beds, covered with fur, skin, hides and sleeping bags. In the common areas, there's an ice couch and an ice bar, of course. Mercifully, the bathrooms are heated and off-site.
For the last few years, design for the Icehotel itself has been a collaborative effort among local artists, architects, and art and architecture students. The nearby Torne River is a big sculptor, too -- the river produces the ice, then freezes it in crystal-clear conditions. Whoever designs the building, layout and prices vary from one year to the next.
Ice Hotel Glace; Quebec
Inspired by the original in Jukkasjarvi, the 7-year-old Ice Hotel Glace on the outskirts of Quebec incorporates the same functionality but in even more refined form. The hotel has framed paintings hanging on its ice walls, more elaborate ice furniture and a swankier ice bar.
This hotel itself is large; 34 rooms, to be exact. Designers sketch up the hotel and build it in a matter of weeks every fall. Each year, the facility has something different -- a new bed, a new bar. By the end of winter, when the weather gets warmer, organizers let nature take its course and melt the structure to the ground. With this in mind, the Ice Hotel Glace's season runs from about mid-November until March at the earliest.
Since its conception, the project has benefited from high-level support from the government of Quebec and the Societe des etablissments de plein air du Quebec. The latter organization, known colloquially as SEPAQ, contributed the land site Station ecotouristique Duchesnay, on which part of the property sits today.
In all, 17,320 people have spent the night in the hotel since 2000. Any one of these people will tell you that once you check out of your ice hotel experience, be sure to explore the city of Quebec before skipping town. The vibrant city is known for its food; check out Restaurant Initiale for nouveau American cuisine.
Aurora Ice Museum; Chena Hot Springs, Alaska
The Aurora Ice Museum, located on the grounds of the Chena Hot Springs Resort 60 miles northeast of Fairbanks, is the only ice hotel in the U.S. Ice-carving champion Steve Brice designed the property earlier this decade, and already hails it as the next big thing.
In this hotel, everything is made of ice: the beds, the chairs, the counters, the glasses and more. Visitors don't even have to spend the night; at the hotel's ice bar, guests can down a chilled martini before heading back to Fairbanks for the day. For those who do opt to spend the night, a parka, snow pants and boots are provided, and guests also have access to a private room in the regular hotel -- just in case.
Perhaps the hotel's most remarkable features are its ice sculptures. The artwork changes every year -- one year a piece depicted a knight in shining armor; another year, there was a sculpture of a giant humpback salmon. The sculptures are larger than life, and each sits on an ice pedestal in the lodge's main room.
Elsewhere in Chena, the resort offers a snow coach service that consists of large track vehicles that climb the ridge for better viewing of the Northern Lights. This spot is a favorite among hotel workers and lay people alike. On a clear night, the aurora borealis shift and creak like glaciers up above.
Alta Igloo Hotel; Alta, Norway
If there is such a thing as a rustic ice hotel, the Alta Igloo Hotel in the northeast corner of Norway would be it. The rooms are not very large, and low ceilings make them a bit claustrophobia-inducing. Still, the experience of sleeping in an igloo under the Northern Lights is second to none.
Apart from its 80 beds the Alta Igloo Hotel houses suites, an ice gallery, an ice bar, an ice chapel and several lounges. Sculpture work also is present here -- hulking ice sculptures that appear as stone until you touch them and they melt in your hand. Each year, designers set up the space with a theme. While the 2008 theme was still up for debate at press time, last year's theme was "Wild Animals of the Alta Valley."
Word of advice: Don't take your luggage into the rooms. The service building contains a luggage room where bags are stored safely during each stay. The rooms contain only beds, while other facilities such as toilets, changing rooms, showers and sauna are in the warm service building to ensure comfort.
Norwegians certainly are creatures of habit, and the property's sauna is heated every morning at 7 a.m. For a more individual path, wander around the town of Alta. Steak lovers flock to Han Steike, regularly considered one of Norway's best butchers and steak cookers. There also are archaeological ruins in town.